There’s a reason we love Nordic writers. Their novels and thrillers are set against a bleak terrain, creating an atmosphere filled with a loneliness that seeps into the cells of the characters. A Fist or a Heart by Icelandic award-winning novelist and playwright, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, falls into this category. The depression and trauma being experienced by the novel’s two women – an elderly prop maker for theater plays and a young woman playwright – are accentuated by the harsh weather.
Elin Jónsdóttir makes props and prosthetics for theatrical productions and Nordic crime films. Because of how these props are used, most are gruesome – severed body parts, for example. She works alone and lives a solitary existence socially, rarely going out or meeting other people. But when she’s hired to make props for a play, she soon becomes infatuated with the young playwright. Ellen Álfsdóttir is the illegitimate daughter of a famous playwright, Álfur Finnsson, and her play is anticipated by her father’s fans.
Elin and Ellen have an odd connection. Elin was the one who found Finnsson’s body on the street, equidistance between the home he shared with his wife and that of his lover, Ellen’s mother. Except for offering Ellen a ride home in rainy weather (which she refuses), Elin manages to just observe not interact with her. But the two women are on similar, albeit separate, downward paths.
Elin, raised by her grandmother after her parents died, is forced to relive her past when three boxes arrive, labeled papers, books, and misc., found in a long forgotten storage room in her grandmother’s house. When she finally opens one of the boxes she finds a glass horse which had once been inserted into her body. She reminisces about a trip to Bangkok and a man she met. It’s all very dreamlike and, at times, disturbing.
Although Ellen’s play is being produced, she doubts it’s any good and provides no help to the director and cast doing their best to mount the production. Ellen has never felt like her father’s daughter, never had a relationship with him. Any effort to follow in his footsteps seems doomed. Her mother is having a breakdown, unraveling one of Finnsson’s sweaters and wrapping the yarn around his gravestone.
While A Fist or a Heart sounds like a downer, it’s anything but. The writing is lyrical, a credit not only to the author but also to the translator, Larissa Kyzer. Despite each woman’s struggle, their resilience and introspection, even at the worst times, is somehow hopeful. After finishing the book, I found myself reading it again, something I rarely do, since I have so many other books waiting to be read and reviewed. This one, I know, will stay with me for a long time.
A Fist or a Heart
Kristin Eiriksdottir photo credit Saga Sigurðardóttir